In teaching, the fear of adding “another thing” is quite valid. We know that teaching is not a simple task, yet new initiatives, acronyms, and responsibilities often send the message of a quick fix while adding to teachers’ already stretched schedules.
Teachers don’t need a savior, and they certainly don’t need to be told what to do from the newest and most exciting best-seller. In fact, teachers know what their students need, and it is the job of administrators, coaches, and instructional leaders to facilitate the collection of teachers’ expertise—already present in the school building—to guide staff as they take back the agency of their own professional learning.
As an assistant principal, I’ve found that this approach strikes close to home. Recently, our administrative team prepared a schedule of professional learning opportunities with the intention of placing the power back into teachers’ hands.
Rather than decide what teachers needed, we wanted our teachers to tell us. Using the instructional rounds model, we adapted the process of classroom observations and created a model of peer learning that brought to light areas of instruction that needed improvement—an approach that I will share below.
A Three-Step Peer Learning Process
My school initiates a three-tiered peer learning process to facilitate professional growth: First, we ensure that classroom observations are not evaluative and instead position administrators as facilitators of professional learning days, tasked with organizing teaching coverage and running debrief activities with faculty.
Next, we center problem-solving, not problem-finding. All of our teachers enter classrooms with our school’s current instructional focus in mind. When observing their peers, they look for evidence—in our case, of how feedback loops and competency-based grading impacts our students. They don’t look for a particular teacher’s area of weakness but instead look for evidence of areas in which our building as a whole can improve.
Finally, and most important, we position the observer as the learner, not the expert. Instruction is a deeply personal act for teachers, and many (correctly) see their instruction as an extension of themselves. What teachers give to their students is purposeful, meaningful, and personal, so to have visitors enter a classroom with a holier-than-thou mindset would be to dismantle the entire process of teacher-driven professional learning. Instead, an inquiry mindset invites us all to identify and learn from one another’s strengths.
A Guide to Implementation
After teachers observe three classrooms for 20 minutes each, they come to our debrief session the next morning with their notes. Our administrative team facilitates a reflective conversation that includes the grouping and regrouping of teachers as they discuss what they saw in their hour of classroom visits. In our building, this model allows us to synthesize a collective total of 36 hours of instructional observations.
Specifically, we ask teachers to identify in their observational notes specific pieces of evidence that are connected to our school’s focus. This year, that meant evidence of students collecting feedback, teachers grouping and regrouping students, and teachers mobilizing their grading practices to effectively communicate progress to students.
Each teacher picks their six best pieces of evidence, writes each on a sticky note, and joins a small group to discuss what they saw. These groups determine patterns from the day of rounds and decide the types of professional learning that they feel the building needs to engage in next.
In all, the use of building-based instructional rounds has become the filter through which all of our professional learning opportunities flow. Before any moment of professional development, our team asks the question, “Does this work come directly from what our teachers are seeing during rounds?”
As a result, we have found that the culture around professional learning in our building is shifting: Teachers are more collaborative, are discovering how their strengths often complement another’s weaknesses, and are engaged in and energized by professional learning.
Increasing Teacher Collaboration
After using the instructional rounds process, our teachers lean on each other in new ways; for example, one teacher borrowed a feedback loop that she saw during rounds, realizing that she could adapt a colleague’s approach to coding to fit her students’ work with factoring polynomials.
When we debriefed from our first iteration of rounds in October, four teachers reported that they wanted to emulate the co-teaching model that they observed their colleagues implementing. During our next day of professional learning, teachers already using the method led a short session sharing how they collaboratively planned and executed lessons.
During our second iteration of peer observations in December, another teacher showcased a grouping strategy that put students into three distinct groups based on their performance on a formative task. When teachers saw this process, they decided that the whole building would benefit from professional learning regarding quick ways to collect data and use it to inform approaches to student grouping.
Teachers, in this way, became in-house professional trainers, enhancing whole-school collaboration and uncovering the complementary nature of each other’s strengths and areas for improvement.
Engaging and Energizing Teachers
Like students, teachers yearn for authenticity. They want to know that what they are learning will help their students.
Because instructional rounds allow us to actively determine our needs based on evidence that is collected and processed by our own teachers, we embrace that authenticity and share ownership of our growth. Teachers in our building care about how their colleagues’ lessons go because they observed them, worked alongside them during our professional learning days, and maybe even collaborated with them to experiment with a new instructional move.
These days, there is a real energy in our building as teachers try out new ideas, ask each other to watch a lesson segment outside of organized instructional rounds, and consider the style and content of professional learning that they think will push their practice forward.
A Key Takeaway
When a collaborative approach like instructional rounds is used to organize the professional observation and debrief process, professional learning is deeply meaningful and rooted in the context of a learning community, and—we are finding—more engaging than something that comes from a professional outside of our school walls.